Don’t assume your team knows how to ask for referrals.

Tim told me his team was “doing referrals.” He figured they knew how to get referrals because he told them to do it. I asked how that approach was working for him. Dead silence.

And therein lies the problem. A big problem. It’s the misguided belief that “telling” translates to “doing.”

The web is replete with articles and webcasts that tell people to just go ask for referrals, like it’s common sense or something. (It’s not.) One author stated that 20 percent of a company’s clients should come from referrals. (Only 20 percent?)

If only 20 percent of your clients were referred, then your team obviously hasn’t learned how to ask for referrals, which means you’re missing out on your prime source of qualified leads. Again, that’s a big problem.

(Image attribution: SHVETS production)

5 Common Referral Misconceptions

Sales pros always agree that they get their most qualified leads when they get referrals. Yet, while everyone loves referrals, most don’t know how to ask for referrals that build a qualified pipeline and generate revenue.

Here are five common referral misconceptions that drive me up a tree (this is how NOT to get referrals):

  1. Getting a name is OK. No, it’s not. Anyone can name drop. That’s not a referral. Contacting someone who doesn’t know you and doesn’t expect to hear from you is an ice-cold outreach. A referral means you receive an introduction to your prospect.

  1. Asking digitally is OK. Nope. It’s a cop out, creepy, and a sales faux pas. Never ask in any digital format—that includes via email and on social media. A referral is highly personal. Talk to your referrers. Find out how they know your prospects, what’s important to the prospects, what their challenges are, what they value, how they communicate, and what might get in the way of your sales success. You won’t find answers to any of these questions on social media. If you don’t reach out, you’ve also missed the opportunity to reconnect, learn what’s new with your referrer, and relay the business reason for making the introduction. Hiding behind technology is shameful.

  1. Referrals slow down the sales process. Nonsense. Get an introduction and you get the meeting in one call. Or, would you rather spend your time on a cold outreach and try a dozen touches to reach your prospect?
  1. Just ask. Yes, you have to ask. You don’t get referrals if you don’t ask for them. But you have to know how to ask—how to describe who you want to meet, make the business case for why someone should refer you, and get the all-important referral introduction.

  1. You have to offer referral rewards. Not if you’re in B2B sales. “Refer a friend” rewards work fine in the B2C space, but in B2B, it’s slimy. I’m not saying never reward referrals. But never make rewards a condition for a referral. Your most important action is to send a handwritten thank-you note. That’s a reward in itself. If you choose to send a gift or donate to a charity after the fact, that’s up to you and will always be appreciated.

What Happens When You Get Referrals?

Nothing beats the power of referrals. You:

  • Get every meeting in one call
  • Automatically earn trust, because you’ve been referred by someone your prospect knows and trusts
  • Dramatically shorten your prospecting time
  • Build relationships your competition can’t break
  • Convert prospects to clients well more than 50 percent of the time

Know any other prospecting outreach that comes close to stats like these? I thought not.

What Gets in the Way?

Referral selling takes effort. Sure, referrals happen from time to time. A great client moves to a new company and brings you in, or someone calls and tells you they were referred. But you can’t depend on occasional referrals to make or exceed your quota. No salesperson worth her salt sits back and waits for the phone to ring. So, why aren’t salespeople asking for referrals?

  1. Companies lack a referral strategy that includes a commitment to making referrals their #1 outbound prospecting approach, with metrics to ensure accountability.
  1. We all fear rejection—no matter our age, gender, culture, or tenure in sales. Referral selling feels very personal … because it is. But the very thing that makes it so intimidating is what makes it so effective.
  1. There are no metrics established for referrals. Reps must have referral activity metrics as well as results metrics that are tied to their KPIs.

(Image attribution: Monstera)

  1. Reps don’t know how to ask. Referral selling is a skill. It’s a behavior change that takes training and accountability for learning. Without training, they’ll just ask to be introduced to “anybody.” I don’t know a person named Anybody. Do you? Generic requests like that are the wrong way to get referrals.
  1. There’s no implementation plan or ongoing reinforcement and coaching. No skill is built by telling. No skill is built without accountability for results.

Solving the Referral Challenge

There’s lots that’s wrong with referral tips proffered all over the internet. Suddenly, referrals are a hot topic, and so-called experts come out of the woodwork who don’t know what they’re talking about. The “latest” strategy is not always the “greatest.” Would you make an investment without checking out the validity of the source? It’s not just “fake news” that is bothersome; it’s that the truth can be hard to find.

Here’s the truth from someone who’s been teaching sales teams how to get referrals for the past 26 years: There’s a right way and a wrong way to get referrals … and to launch a referral program.

Check out my proven referral selling system for both individuals and teams. Or, to quickly get referral selling best practices, schedule a call with me. Email, and I’ll send my calendar.

(Featured image attribution: Andrea Piacquadio)

(This post was originally published on July 19, 2018 and updated November 15, 2022.)